The Chicago DSA Office

These are some photos of minor historical interest, mostly for those preoccupied with left history or with Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

My inspiration for posting them is this: Some days ago, I received an email notification of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s annual membership convention on June 8. If that sounds at all interesting, check out their web site; you need not be a member to sit in. While I’ve been a member since the organization was formed from a merger in 1982-1983, and a day-to-day activist from 1989 to 2017, I had only a transitory impulse to attend. There’s not much political about my decision; in fact, if you’re a Chicago lefty but not a marxist-leninist, I think you really ought to be there.

My decision is mostly personal. After almost 30 years, it’s time to spend my time on other things, even if I continue keeping an eye on politics as a spectator… mostly. But that transitory thought brought to mind a few photos I had taken of Chicago DSA’s old office at 1608 N. Milwaukee Avenue. These are from 2003 and 2004.

Chicago DSA’s very first office was in a building owned by In These Times at 1300 W. Belmont. It was a generous suite of offices that we shared with a regional DSA office run by the national organization. Along about 1985, it became clear that the money wasn’t there to maintain regional offices, never mind staffing them, so Chicago DSA had to look for smaller, cheaper space. We found the Northwest Tower Building. (Also see chicago.designslinger.) Our first office there may have been on the 5th floor or the 7th; I forget. We spent some time on both. By 1987, we were in a tiny space on the 12th floor. Sometime early in 1988, we moved to a somewhat larger space on the 4th floor, where we stayed until 2014. Around the turn of the century, we knocked down the wall to a tiny office next door to create a comfortable meeting area.

For most of the time we were in the Northwest Tower, the building was a commercial slum. I strongly suspect the owner for much of that period used the property as an ATM machine. The windows were the original 1929 installation, rarely cleaned and in precarious condition. On the other hand, they also opened from the top, making the office temperate for all but the very hottest days of the summer. When we expanded the office, we finally bought an air conditioner, mostly because of the intolerable roar of passing CTA trains and the dust and diesel exhaust from North Avenue.

2003-036
That’s not snow! On average, the windows were cleaned once every 4 or 5 years. Photo by Roman.

The building was also notable for being one of the three remaining buildings (at the time, that I know of) in Chicago with public elevators run by human operators. The operators were all real characters and I fondly remember them all, especially the two mainstays of the operation, two Polish immigrants: “Grandpa” and Victor. The building would have been a disaster without either of them.

2003-038
Looking westward at the original 4th floor office. It included the two windows visible. Photo by Roman.
2003-037
Another look at the original Room 403. Photo by Roman.
2003-039
Looking east at the meeting area and what was once Room 404. We did dust before meetings! Photo by Roman.
2004-137
Sticking my head out the window, this is a look westward on North Avenue. The CTA trains were incredibly loud but so was North Avenue.
2004-138
People watching was always entertaining. By 2004, Wicker Park was well on its way to being hip. Photo by Roman.

After another change in ownership and another bankruptcy, the building was sold to a developer who would gut the structure to convert it into a boutique hotel as it is today. Right before we moved, I wrote this for New Ground 151:

“After something like 28 years in the same building, Chicago DSA is moving. Chicago DSA staffer Mark Davidson found the Northwest Tower Building when it was a nearly empty shell in the process of being rehabbed. The neighborhood was neglected, sometimes dangerous, and gritty. The landlord was politically friendly. The rent was cheap. We moved in.

“It hasn’t been all 28 years in the same office. The first few years we moved just about every year, dodging the rising drywall. But we have been in 403 since 1988. Come the 21st century, we took over the office next door so we could have meetings in the office, and we added an air conditioner, mostly to cut down on the noise and dirt from outside.

“Built in 1929, the Northwest Tower (sometimes called the “Coyote Tower”) is a gently art deco 12 story (190′) masonry clad structure (architect: Perkins, Chatten, & Hammond). Its construction was financed by the long defunct Noel State Bank whose gorgeous headquarters still stands (as a Walgreens today) right across the street. The capital, it is said, came from the alternative pharmaceutical trade.

“Even after having been rehabbed, the Northwest Tower building was not in the greatest of shape. And the quarter century since has not been kind to the structure. The neighborhood, however, has become an expensive part of Chicago’s party district. Judging by the number of bars, bistros and restaurants, it’s not clear that anyone actually cooks at home in Wicker Park / Bucktown except to entertain and maybe not even then. Or that they go home sober on a weekend evening.

“The property has gone through two bankruptcies in the years we’ve been here. This last was rumored to be a saga of fiscal chicanery that involved ten different banks. But now that’s all settled. The building (and the “fireproof” warehouse next door) is to become a boutique hotel.”

I wish I had taken more photos of the rest of the building: the elevators, the doors, the stairwells. But with a film camera, I was overly parsimonious with my shots.

Chicago DSA ended up at 3411 W. Diversey Avenue, right at the northern border of the Logan Square neighborhood. It is a smaller and less expensive space with a different set of advantages and disadvantages. But like the Northwest Tower Building, it’s also an art deco structure, dating from 1939.

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Doonesbury…

Roland B. Hedley Jr is Doonesbury‘s intrepid reporter, famous for seeking Reagan’s brain but now working for something resembling Fox News.

May Day in the Haymarket 2019

May 1st — May Day — is Labor’s holiday around most of the world, a notable exception being the United States, even though the holiday commemorates the Haymarket Affair (aka Haymarket massacre, aka Haymarket Square riot) here in Chicago that happened on May 4, 1886, as part of a nationwide strike demanding an 8 hour work day. As a result of the police riot, 8 activists were tried in a show trial. 7 were sentenced to death. Of the 7, 2 had their sentence commuted, 1 committed suicide (probably), and 4 were hung.

Why we celebrate the labor movement in September instead of May is another story, though you wouldn’t be far off simply assuming that it is an ideological statement. After all, May 1 is officially Law Day in the United States.

Even so, union activists and lefties have insisted on observing May 1 with rallies, demonstrations and educational programs. In Chicago, the Illinois Labor History Society served as the point organization for most years since the 1970s. Some years have been bigger than others.

While there is monument to the Haymarket martyrs in the Waldheim Cemetery in suburban Forest Park (administered by the Illinois Labor History Society), in recent years most of the Illinois Labor History Society commemorations have been taking place at what was the old Haymarket. Chicago has erected its own monument to the event. Strictly speaking, its subject is freedom of speech and assembly, so it covers “Law Day” as well.

Click on any image to enlarge it.

This year’s event was not the smallest I’ve been to but it was nowhere near the largest — try a half million people in the streets. My guess is the crowd at its largest was around 200. If you were much further than two dozen feet or so, the speakers were nearly impossible to hear. Consequently, I can’t tell you much about the program.

Click on any image to enlarge it.

This wasn’t the only May Day related event in Chicago. There was a labor march of some sort in Hyde Park. There was also a celebration of Mother Jones’ birthday. But I’m sure there were other events as well.

 

 

The Trial

Kafka Lives!

“Alka Pradhan, James Connell and Sterling Thomas are lawyers for Ammar al-Baluchi, one of the five men facing the death penalty for plotting the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.

“The Trial provides a window into the build-up to the largest criminal trial in US history and reflects on the impact of a rarely seen part of the war on terror: the lack of accountability for the legacy of torture.”

Fukushima Revisited

It was March 11, 2011, when the reactors in Fukushima, Japan, were trashed by the earthquake and tsunami. I had found an hour long documentary on the events of that month on YouTube, but apparently the copyright police found it a few days ago. (A longer version is available for rental on Vimeo.) So instead, here is a National Geographic presentation on efforts to remediate and resettle parts of the contaminated area. This documentary isn’t very challenging, but the updates after eight years are interesting.

 

The Third Way Surrenders?

Never bring a chess board to a poker game…

It is almost certainly a stretch to take one person’s opinion to represent an entire political tendency, but Vox recently published a remarkable interview with Brad DeLong. Brad DeLong is in many ways an archetypical centrist Democrat. He had been a mid-level political appointee in the Clinton administration (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury) where, according to Wikipedia, he “and Lawrence Summers co-wrote two theoretical papers that were to become critical theoretical underpinnings for the financial deregulation put in place when Summers was Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton.”

Gee, thank you Professor DeLong: That was a fabulous Great Recession you gave us, not to mention NAFTA, the dotcom crash, and various and sundry currency crises. Sorry. I’m a tad bitter.

In any case, DeLong is now urging centrist Democrats to not simply support the left, but to look to the left for leadership. How did it come to this? This exchange between Vox’s Zack Beauchamp and Brad DeLong gets to the nub of the matter:

Zack Beauchamp
What you’re describing is a broad theory of political economy, in which a vision for what economic policies are best is intertwined with a particular view of what makes policies popular and sustainable. You say something about this is wrong — do you think it’s the political part, the economic part, or both?

Brad DeLong
We were certainly wrong, 100 percent, on the politics.

Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. He’s all these things not because the technocrats in his administration think they’re the best possible policies, but because [White House adviser] David Axelrod and company say they poll well.

And [Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel and company say we’ve got to build bridges to the Republicans. We’ve got to let Republicans amend cap and trade up the wazoo, we’ve got to let Republicans amend the [Affordable Care Act] up the wazoo before it comes up to a final vote, we’ve got to tread very lightly with finance on Dodd-Frank, we have to do a very premature pivot away from recession recovery to “entitlement reform.”

All of these with the idea that you would then collect a broad political coalition behind what is, indeed, Mitt Romney’s health care policy and John McCain’s climate policy and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy.

And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years?

No, they fucking did not. No allegiance to truth on anything other than the belief that John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell are the leaders of the Republican Party, and since they’ve decided on scorched earth, we’re to back them to the hilt. So the politics were completely wrong, and we saw this starting back in the Clinton administration.

Today, there’s literally nobody on the right between those frantically accommodating Donald Trump, on the one hand, and us on the other. Except for our brave friends in exile from the Cato Institute now trying to build something in the ruins at the [centrist] Niskanen Center. There’s simply no political place for neoliberals to lead with good policies that make a concession to right-wing concerns.

Hah: “… tread very lightly with finance” indeed! Do you wonder why nearly no one went to jail as a consequence of the 2008 Crash and Great Recession, especially when there had been such blatant fraud and self-dealing? The answer is complicated and major corporations were fined billions, but much of the blame for the lack of criminal prosecution can be laid on Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder. Holder maintained that prosecutors should take “collateral consequences” into account when “conducting an investigation, determining whether to bring charges, and negotiating plea agreements.” In other words, a perpetrator can look at a prosecutor and say: “Nice economy you have here… pity if something should happen to it.” Oh, yes, those collateral consequences: too big to fail, too big to be criminal.

If you want to explore the issue of accountability for the 2008 débâcle in justice, American Public Media’s Marketplace had a reasonably detailed examination of the whys and wherefores that you can find HERE.

Contrast this with the late U.S. Representative Phillip Burton whose 1977 proposal for expanding the Redwood National Park, for example, was adamantly opposed by the timber industry. He showed them a plan that looked to put them pretty much out of business then he showed them his proposed compromise. Agree to the compromise by tomorrow, he told them in a meeting, or my proposal is what you get. Burton’s biographer (A Rage for Justice, University of California Press, 1995), John Jacobs, quotes Burton as saying, “If you show them the depths of hell, everything else looks pretty good.”

I don’t propose Burton as a role model. For one thing, Burton’s compromises tended to include provisions buying off the opposition, with the cost not very high on the list of considerations. In this regard, he was almost a living specimen of the conservatives’ “tax and spend liberal” stereotype. But at some point during the 1980s and onward, political professionals working the Democratic brand stopped playing poker and began playing chess instead. Unable to transcend the limits of calculated possibility, is it any wonder they kept getting their butts kicked? Is it any wonder an outsider, Bernie Sanders, came so close to defeating Hillary Clinton; that indeed no one else of any consequence had been willing to try?

As DeLong said, you most certainly did see it “back in the Clinton administration.” But my mind boggles that, after having the 2000 Presidential election ripped off by the Supreme Court (Bush v. Gore), anyone would have any illusion that the conservative stance toward President Obama would be any different.

(Obama, at least, had a better excuse: to be President and to live to tell about it. Large parts of our country, albeit a minority of it, were not ready for him as President at all. To anyone under 40 years old, this may seem hyperbolic, but assassination was all too common in the 1960s and 1970s, much of it done from the right, much of it motivated by racism or bigotry. Also, remember Oklahoma City. It hard to imagine this not being a factor in Obama’s decisions.)

If that had not been enough, there were more clues about what awaited an Obama Administration in the healthcare policy debates prior to Obama’s election. These debates were done on the state level, including here in Illinois. When a task force appointed in Illinois to consider healthcare alternatives reported in favor of what was then Republican Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan, that recommendation gained no favor among conservatives. To be fair, the left was equally unimpressed. See “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Universal Health Care How!

A lot of us on the left had been making this point since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election as President: Reagan was not another Eisenhower or Nixon or Ford, but represented a movement with an ideological agenda that would compromise only to the extent that it could be checked.* In Illinois, for example, we (DSA predecessor DSOC was a member organization) helped organize the Illinois Coalition Against Reagan Economics to educate and agitate the public and public officials about the nature of this new movement. Some among liberals and labor were willing to listen; others had to learn through repeated experience.

Some Republicans saw this more clearly, even back then. In that 1980 election, Illinois Republican Congressman John Anderson ran for President as an Independent and earned 6.6% of the popular vote. As early as 1963, liberal Republican Senator Jacob Javits (who spent a few years in the second decade of the 20th Century as a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League) was speculating on a right-wing takeover of the Republican brand, although as late as 1982, it was possible for a DSA member to be elected to a state legislature as a Republican: Tarrel Miller, South Dakota’s 14th District. This could still happen today, depending on the vagaries of state election law and local demographics; it’s all up to who wins the primary. But consider how unlikely that seems.

Well, whatever. Welcome to the Resistance, Professor.

(Watch your backs, folks.)


* I am aware of the irony: This is very much the stereotype that is held by many conservatives about socialists. Irony, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a dandelion in the field of politics. We exclaim over each delicious blossom but, bugger all, they’re everywhere. And their seeds are legion in the wind. I’m not unique in this attitude towards turn of the century conservatism, however. Consider Natalie Wynn’s informed and entertaining and (warning) ribald Decrypting the Alt-Right.

Wait! Look! There’s another irony in bloom: at least some of the current state of affairs could be blamed on a decades long 20th Century project by ideologues on both the right and the left to “realign” the Republican and Democratic brands. Among Democrats, this project dates back to the 1930s. On both the right and the left, this was accompanied by a desire for party government rather like what is found in most other countries but is discouraged by the U.S. Constitution. One could reasonably argue that the present polarization is yet another example of “be careful what you wish for.” On the other hand, the process hasn’t finished playing out.

And I would contend that some of the extremism on the right is a consequence of panic born of the 1960s and 1970s, aggravated and maintained by radical changes in the economy, means of production and demography of the turn of the century. Whoever is in charge gets to make the rules that will profoundly shape the nation for decades to come. But I’m getting into waters over my head here.

If you want to explore the current state of political polarization here in the States, I’d strongly recommend The Geography of Partisan Prejudice by Amanda Ripley, Rekha Tenjarla and Angela Y. He, posted this March at The Atlantic. Some of their findings are not at all surprising but some of the others are indeed interesting or unexpected.